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Lien Sales

Mechanical liens are a type of lien that can be placed on a vehicle when repairs,  or maintenance services have been performed but payment has not been made. It is also for unpaid storage at storage facilities, repair shops, tow yards or mechanics. In California, the DMV governs the process for enforcing these liens and conducting lien sales. The lien gives the repair shop or storage facility the legal right to retain possession of the vehicle until payment is made or to sell the vehicle to recoup the costs of the unpaid services.

In California, the process for enforcing a mechanical lien involves giving notice to the owner of the vehicle and any other interested parties, such as lienholders or insurance companies. The notice must include information about the lien, the amount owed, and the deadline for payment. If payment is not made by the deadline, the repair shop may sell the vehicle through a lien sale. The proceeds of the sale are used to pay off the amount owed to the repair shop, and any remaining funds are returned to the owner of the vehicle.

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Frequently Asked Questions & Common Scenarios For Lien Sales​

What is a lien holder?

In the context of mechanical liens and the California DMV, a lien holder refers to a party or entity that has a legal claim on a vehicle due to an outstanding debt or unpaid services related to the vehicle's repair or maintenance. When an individual or business performs mechanical work on a vehicle and the owner fails to pay for the services rendered, the mechanic or service provider can assert a lien on the vehicle. This lien gives the mechanic the right to retain possession of the vehicle until the outstanding debt is settled. In some cases, the lien holder may also have the authority to sell the vehicle to recover the owed amount. To protect the rights of lien holders and ensure proper procedures are followed, the California DMV has specific guidelines and regulations in place. It's essential for both mechanics and vehicle owners to be aware of these regulations to avoid any potential disputes or legal issues related to the lien process.

What is a lien sale?

In California, a lien sale is a vital DMV procedure employed by various entities, including individuals, mechanics, body shops, junk yards, and law enforcement, to retrieve fees for unpaid and overdue services. It serves to notify registered owners, interested parties, and legal owners about outstanding balances or cases of vehicle abandonment or impoundment. For mechanics and body shops, the lien sale enables them to recover their rightful costs, while law enforcement and individuals utilize it to notify interested parties of the need to remove a vehicle, lest it be subject to sale or destruction.

What triggers a lien sale?

If you owe a repair shop/mechanic fees for services, and you do not pay, a lien sale will be triggered by them to recover their costs If you’ve abandoned a vehicle on a private property, and the individual wants it removed. If a vehicle has been deemed abandoned by law enforcement If a vehicle has been received by a junk yard.

What are the different types of lien sales?

1 Abandoned/abated vehicles: Vehicles that are valued under $500 have lien sales that are conducted within 15 days. These are usually conducted by law enforcement or junk yards.
2 Short liens or vehicles valued under $4000: this lien sale is for vehicles that are valued under $4000. They usually take 31 days or so to complete and the maximum allowable fee to charge is $70.
3 Long liens or vehicles valued over $4000 or are in a storage facility: this lien sale is for high value vehicles or vehicles that are stored in a storage facility. For storage facilities, the lien sale will be a long lien by default. These lien sales usually go between 60 and 90 days. Also note, the lien sale in essence goes in 2 parts, and is very thorough.
4 Vessel lien sales valued under $1500: this is a boats versions of a “short” lien. The only condition with this one is that you must come in with an appraisal from a vessel dealer confirming tha tit is under $1500 in value.
5 Vessel lien sales valued over $1500: this is a boat’s version of a “long” line. The process for this is around 60 to 90 days and does NOT require an appraisal.

How much does a lien sale costs?

Per the DMV manual, these are the maximum fees allowable to be charged:
Short lien: $70
Long lien: $100
Note: these fees will vary – there are companies that conduct lien sales at a very high volume, and therefore offer a low rate for their service. In addition, there are other companies that charge their service fee, plus costs associated with the fee, such as postage, an ad that needed to be placed, or other costs that are needed to be paid to conduct the lien sale.

What type of lien sale do I need?

In general, when it comes to motorcycles, automobiles, trucks or trailers, there are two types and they are based on value:

1 - A short lien - the vehicle is valued at $4000 or less
2 - A long lien - the vehicle is valued at $4001 and above

How long does it take to process the lien sale?

1 - Short liens take roughly 30-35 days
2 - Long liens are currently taking 90 to 180 days (this varies on the DMV's workload)

Lien Sale Process - Short Lien vs Long Lien

In general, the difference between a short lien vs a long lien comes down to the amount of time it takes from start to finish & the steps that are involved in the process.
1 - Short liens take 30 days to process and notifications to the registered owner, legal owners and other interested parties are made through "certificate of mailing" - which sounds like certified mail but is NOT - it's a much cheaper alternative to document mailing a letter out.
2 A long lien is performed on higher value vehicles, and therefore, have more scrutiny & steps. The research portion (determining registered owners and legal owners and other interested parties) is done by the DMV. Furthermore, they also notify these interested parties via certified mail. After that has been completed, the lien holder or agent representing the lien holder notifies the interested parties when and where the vehicle will be up for sale, and finally, an ad must be placed in a newspaper in the same area the vehicle is being sold. The additional cost is largely associated with the extra steps, the cost associated with sending notices via certified mail and the ad that must be placed.

Lien Sale Common Issues & Misconceptions

1 People use the lien sale process to obtain ownership/title to a vehicle. Either they purchased the vehicle from someone that did NOT have the title or bill of sale or proper documentation, OR, they had the paperwork and now lost it. The lien sale process is NOT allowed in these scenarios. The DMV, as difficult as they can be, offers solutions to this scenario. Our office deals in title reconstructions/bonded titles – so if that is the case with you – contact us regarding that – and DO NOT process a lien sale.
2 Home mechanics or body shops that are operating without the proper licensing for BAR cannot collect repairs in the lien sale. They are only allowed to charge storage fees.
3 You cannot perform a lien sale on a unit that does not have a VIN – if you cannot locate a VIN it is advisable that you contact a VIN verification company to attempt to locate it. Ultimately, you cannot do a lien sale on a vehicle that does not have a VIN.
4 Dealerships cannot perform lien sales for the purposes of obtaining a title, however, if the vehicle is in their possession due to repairs that were done, that does allow them to perform a lien sale on the vehicle.
5 If a lien sale was conducted on your vehicle, but the lien sale never finalized, there may be a VLT stop on file. To remove it you must have a Vin verification done on your vehicle to confirm that you actually have possession of the vehicle.
6 Per Chapter 18 of the DMV manual, the lien sale process does NOT “erase”, “void”, “waive” any back fees or penalties that were due on the vehicle.


Overall, understanding the process for enforcing a mechanical lien in California is important for both repair shops and vehicle owners. For repair shops, it ensures that they are able to recoup the costs of unpaid services. For vehicle owners, it serves as a reminder to pay for services in a timely manner to avoid the potential for a lien sale.

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